Districts get creative to improve attendance rates

Districts throughout California are getting creative when it comes to making sure young students are showing up, and according to a new whitepaper, it’s all because school leaders took a deep dive into their data to help better understand which students are missing the most school and why.

The Tulare City School District, for instance, noted that common childhood illnesses can be a significant contributor to absenteeism among its youngest students, and began incorporating proper hand washing technique into the curriculum.

Called Operation Healthy Hands, the program includes the use of a special powder that students wash off their hands. Under an ultraviolet light, they can see if they need to scrub a little more to get rid of the fake germs. District officials told researchers at WestEd–a San Francisco-based nonprofit research organization that focuses on education issues–that they will continue to track data to see if the curriculum is working to prevent the spread of illness among students and reduce absenteeism.

The report also highlighted efforts made in the Parlier Unified School District–most notably its communitywide superhero campaign, designed to increase attendance rates by boosting awareness of the importance of showing up among students, families and the public.

Parlier’s child welfare and attendance director explained to researchers that the campaign includes numerous outreach efforts with messaging about the importance of being at school on time, and being responsible. These include videos, community resource guides, banners, posters, and even a billboard in the center of town.

What makes the district’s strategy unique, however, is that local high school students dress up as superheroes to greeting younger kids as they arrive at school and encourage them to be engaged in their learning.

Schools throughout the U.S. have long used incentives like pizza parties to celebrate good attendance rates, but more and more districts are working to address the root causes that keep kids out of school.

In high-poverty communities especially, the barriers can be a lack of access to basic necessities, which is why many schools have begun partnering with local organizations to ensure children and their families can access vision, dental, mental and behavioral health resources. Others have worked to connect families to resources that can help with issues related to a lack of food, housing or transportation.

According to national data, more than 8 million students are chronically absent each year–which is often defined as missing 10 percent or more of the school year, or about two days each month. Missing that much school has unsurprisingly been linked to lower test scores in English language arts and math, but as early as middle school, chronic absenteeism is considered a strong indicator of which students will drop out of school and come into contact with the justice system.

To nip the issue in the bud, many districts have been working to better track and analyze their attendance data. That way they can ensure schools contact parents as soon as their child is absent, and set up a meeting with families and staff if absences start to add so that students don’t fall so far behind that they can’t catch up.